Staff writer Helen Chen spent an evening at Lenfest with two trailblazing poets, Kim Hyesoon and Don Mee Choi.

LENFEST CENTER OF THE ARTS, The Lantern. Kim Hyesoon and Don Mee Choi appear behind a microphone, ready to read from their defining oeuvre of poems. Kim Hyesoon is an award-winning poet from South Korea who has received the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Cikada Prize, and the Samsung Ho-Am Prize. Her poems frequently engage with themes of feminism and the avant-garde. Don Mee Choi, renowned poet and frequent translator of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry, has received recognition from the National Book Award, MacArthur Grant, Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Whiting Award. 

The event opens up with Don Mee Choi’s reading from “Sky Translation” from DMZ Colony and further meditates on translation as a medium for anticolonial resistance. DMZ Colony is a National Book Award winner that reacts to the heavily militarized Korean Demilitarized Zone, the period of South Korea’s U.S.-backed military dictatorship, and consequences of empire. Choi calls her words “orphan words,” words that are moving between borders, estranged. Seamlessly, Kim follows by reading a few poems from Phantom Pain Wings, which as Kim describes, explores beauty as well as the hurt that comes from mourning.

Both Choi and Kim brought in visual counterparts to their poetry readings. Several of Kim’s poems feature a bird figure that moved between several of her poems. As the poems were being read, a repeated collection of images was projected on a screen. Some of these images show humanlike figures with wings. As the words progress in the poem, the images also, make it a dual narrative for the audience listening and seeing elements of the poem. 

Challenging the form of poetry is central to Kim’s expression of beauty. She takes great care to make sure the presentation of the poem is a thought-out process as her poems. At one reading, she arranged someone to play the cello next to her. For Kim, accepting the full weight of mourning is a way to express poetic beauty and challenging ugly experiences as needing to be repressed or erased. In the later Q&A session, Kim confessed that she was not actively thinking about beauty as she wrote her poems, but actively traced it. Like Kim, Choi is also interested in the untaken space in poetry.

During the Q&A session, Choi and Kim were extremely down to earth. At one point, Kim reminded the audience that she “didn’t know everything,” and Choi added, “Kim Hyesoon says she doesn’t know everything, but I know nothing.” The room burst into a soft round of laughter. Both remained candid as they responded to audience questions. Kim emphasized using everyday language in her poems, and Choi pointed to her centering of memory and mourning in her translation practice. It is through translation, Choi remarks, that self-understanding happens. Oh, and she also described the audience as “transparent rats” that multiply, which also made the room laugh a little. Translating for transparent rats means that Choi is able to achieve the needed distance from her readers as she works words across linguistic boundaries.

As an audience member, it’s fascinating to hear the back and forth between these two esteemed poets, one of whom is actively using the other as a canvas to bring words into another language, breathing another life into the poem. Kim regards poetry as an exercise to “wash away the dirt and filth upon language.” It is a space where language can be pushed against the “oppression of the mother tongue” which is to say beyond its initial limitations and conventions. She writes for a future audience, a “ghost” reader. Perhaps in this way, language can find new iterations and be free.

When the main segment concluded, long lines gathered around set-up tables, waiting for their books to be signed.  This event was sponsored by Center for Korean Research at Columbia University and The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities. All information about this event can be found on the Columbia University School of the Arts website.

Hyesoon/Mee Choi via Flickr

Screen with illustration via Author

Header via Lenfest Arts